I first picked up Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in my local Barnes & Noble for the simple, superficial reason that I loved the cover design. Yet what drew me to read the a few pages and then ultimately purchase it that day was the intriguing premise promised by the back cover blurb: an innocent prince caught in a tangled web of corruption, secrets, and even murder. I was pulled in by the compelling juxtapositions between good and evil, moral and immoral, innocent and sinful, intelligent and idiotic. What are the distinguishing factors between the components of each opposing pair? And how oppositional are these pairs in actuality? Are they mutually exclusive or is there a blurry bridge that straddles both sides?
Prince Myshkin quickly became the most fascinating aspect of the novel in my eyes, precisely due to his position on this blurry bridge. As written in The Guardian by A.S. Byatt in 2004:
“The central idea of The Idiot as we have it was, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter, “to depict a completely beautiful human being”. Prince Myshkin is a Russian Holy Fool, a descendant of Don Quixote, and a type of Christ in an un-Christian world. Author and character face the problem all good characters face in all novels – good in fiction is just not as interesting as wickedness, and runs the risk of repelling readers…”
The Prince is often ridiculed by his peers for being an “idiot,” yet in many ways he is the most intelligent one of them all. He is surrounded by a society that cares for nothing but money and social status, a society that tugs on all corners of his life in an attempt to mold him into something different. My heart ached for the Prince even as he made questionable decisions that could have easily been avoided with careful thought. In this way he is as frustrating as he is admirable. Many of the characters in The Idiot follow a similar pattern in terms of contradictory personalities. I was constantly being torn between pitying and opposing several characters, especially towards the end of the story.
There are countless different levels and interpretations of meaning to this novel that I hardly know where to begin. One can view the story through a religious lens, asserting that the Prince is a Christ figure countered by the Satan-like figure of the murderer. Or one can talk about the role that Fate seems to play in the story. Does the Prince really deserve any of the misfortune that befalls him? There is also the complicated discussion of death in general, a topic that fuels many philosophical tangents and conversations in the novel. I would love to read this book in a class to be able to dissect some of these philosophical asides.
One of my favorite passages in The Idiot is an excellent demonstration of Dostoevsky’s brilliant wisdom and talent with language. At one point in the novel he states:
“It wasn’t the New World that mattered…Columbus died almost without seeing it; and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.”
I must have reread those few sentences a handful of times when I first came across them while reading. Using Columbus as an example of “failed” discovery is such a smart move because it’s something that a lot of people are familiar with and can easily relate to.
However, the main issue I have with this novel is that I still feel as though I don’t fully understand everything that happened. Prior to reading The Idiot I had never read a novel translated from Russian before. I must admit that I think this had something to do with my increasing confusion as the narrative progressed. I’m sure that Russian names are a common source of frustration for English-speaking readers– at least, they certainly were for me as I attempted to keep all of their names straight in my mind. Of course, it didn’t help that I read this book over the course of several months. An extremely busy semester meant that I went weeks at a time without picking The Idiot back up again. To be honest, I’m surprised I was able to remember the basic events of the plot never mind the names of all of the characters. While it’s not necessarily fair to blame the novel for my confusion, it’s still important to acknowledge the issue because it nevertheless impacted my thoughts on The Idiot as a whole.
Overall, I’m glad I stumbled upon this striking edition of The Idiot while perusing the shelves of Barnes & Noble months ago because it has opened my eyes to the work of Dostoevsky. Though I’m left with mixed feelings about this particular novel, I feel like it’s something I might come back to in the future and try again.
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) 3 out of 5.
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes, along with a word of advice to read it without long periods of interruption.
What are your thoughts on The Idiot? Would you recommend any of Dostoevsky’s other works? Let me know in the comments section below!